Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 17;   April 23, 2003:

Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza

by

When we notice patterns or coincidences, we draw conclusions about things we can't or didn't directly observe. Sometimes the conclusions are right, and sometimes not. When they're not, organizations, careers, and people can suffer. To be right more often, we must master critical thinking.

The lab phone rang, and Julie picked up. It was the night guard reporting that the pizza had arrived. "Be right down," she said, and hung up. She went around the corner and found Bugs leaning back in the rolling chair, feet propped up on the system desk, watching the colored bars dancing on the screen.

"Pizza's here, your turn," she said.

Pizza"Right," he said, "Take over." He left and Julie sat down, wondering when they would finally find this bug. Whenever they ran the test with the Marigold module, the system failed immediately. When they swapped out Marigold and put the old rev in, it ran just fine.

They were stumped. After three weeks of long nights, Julie was becoming convinced that the problem could only be in the midnight pizza.

Bugs returned, and they sat down to eat. Partway through the first slice, Julie had a thought. "What if Marigold isn't the problem?" [Brenner 2006]

Chewing a mouthload, Bugs somehow managed, "What?"

When we're stressed,
critical thinking is difficult
"I mean, suppose there's a problem in the system itself, and the old rev of this module compensates somehow. The system would work with the old rev, but fail with Marigold."

Bugs stared into his paper plate, but stopped chewing. "You mean…we've wasted three weeks?"

It turned out that Julie was right. Since the system had run flawlessly for years, everyone assumed that the system itself handled the data correctly. But Marigold really did things correctly, and that made it incompatible with the rest of the system. Julie had uncovered an unrecognized assumption, which led them to incorrect conclusions.

Critical thinking is the process of drawing sound inferences based on evidence, principles, and an understanding of the world. When we're stressed, critical thinking is difficult, because so much of our energy is consumed in stress. Unrecognized assumptions are just one kind of failure of critical thinking. Here are three more examples of failures of critical thinking.

Wishing
When we want a specific outcome, and incoming information is consistent with that outcome, we tend to believe that the outcome has occurred, even if the data supports alternate explanations.
Misunderstanding statistics
When we notice a freakish coincidence, it can seem so unlikely that we feel that it can't be coincidence. We conclude incorrectly that correlation is evidence of connection.
Rushing to judgment
When we're aware that we don't have actual proof, but we're sure we're right anyway, we can believe that the proof will emerge soon enough. So we decide that our inference is the truth, and we forget that we don't have proof.

To work effectively on a complex problem, a group needs freedom from panic. When long hours and excessive stress limit our ability to think critically, the problem truly can be in the midnight pizza. Go to top Top  Next issue: A Message Is Only a Message  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Brenner 2006]
Richard Brenner. "Asking Brilliant Questions," Point Lookout blog, November 22, 2006. Available here. This is an example of a "brilliant question." Back

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